02/01/2024, 13.38
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Espionage and military secrets: China vs the West over student visas

by John Ai

The geopolitical confrontation between the United States and China is having serious repercussions on academic research. The number of Chinese students enrolled in US universities is down for the fourth year in a row. Many projects in the fields of artificial intelligence and quantum computing are dual use and can be exploited by the military.

Beijing (AsiaNews) – The United States, Canada, and some European countries have boosted security screening of Chinese students entering their territory to contain growing threats linked to espionage activities on behalf of the People’s Republic of China.

Recently, scores of Chinese college and university students have been stopped at US airports and repatriated to China after their student visa was cancelled for suspected links with China’s military.

Overall, the number of Chinese students enrolled in US universities has declined for the fourth consecutive year, statistics show, underscoring not-so-latent tensions. In fact, the geopolitical confrontation between the United States and China is having serious repercussions for academic research.

Last Sunday, Beijing's ambassador to the United States Xie Feng noted in a speech at Lunar New Year celebrations that many Chinese students have been questioned recently at airport border controls. Some have been refused entry, their visas revoked before deportation back to China.

Xie mentioned a case in Florida, where the local assembly passed a law banning Chinese students from working in university laboratories that receive public funding.

The diplomat blamed the United States for politicising educational exchange, effectively blocking young people's studies and disrupting their school and life plans. Added to this is the fact that top brains are prevented from studying in and contributing to research in the United States.

Florida's new law is aimed at preventing joint research programmes with seven countries of concern – including China, Russia, and Iran – at publicly funded universities; this has created confusion among Chinese applicants and drawn some criticism from some of the state's universities.

China is, for example, the main source country for international students at the University of Florida (UF). In 2020, more than a thousand Chinese were taking postgraduate and doctoral courses at UF.

Although the legislation does not prevent Chinese nationals who pay for their own studies from enrolling in public universities, it ends up affecting many applicants who want to study in programmes that offer publicly funded positions of teaching or research assistant.

In order to deal with growing threats of Chinese espionage, the United States has tightened security controls for Chinese students in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.

As a result, some students have had their visa cancelled for concealing their military background or their experience in military-affiliated institutions.

This week, several official Chinese media reported that a Chinese doctoral student was questioned for hours by customs officials at an airport. He was asked, for example, if his relatives were members of the Communist Party of China, and his electronic devices, including mobile phone and laptop, were checked. Eventually, he was denied entry.

The situation has drawn the attention of China's official media, which have recently focused on US rhetoric and discrimination, while China's foreign ministry has accused the United States of rejecting or restricting student visa applications on the grounds of national security.

However, the number of Chinese students going to the US has been declining for years. According to the Open Doors 2023 Report by the Institute of International Education (IIE), the number dropped from 372,500 in the 2019/20 academic year to 289,500 in the 2022/23 academic year, while comparatively, students from India have seen their numbers increased rapidly over the same period.

In addition, stricter immigration policy in Western countries and a weak labour market in China are discouraging students from going abroad, while Chinese firms seem to turning away from candidates with overseas study experience.

The percentage of students from top Chinese universities who choose to study abroad is also declining, with more opting for stable positions in government or state-owned enterprises.

Canada too has recently followed the United States and restricted access to students from universities affiliated with China’s military.

Last month, the Canadian government released a list of 11 sensitive technologies, including Internet security, advanced weapons, and quantum computing, as well as a list of 103 foreign research institutions that could pose a threat to the country’s national security. As many as 85 are in China.

Canada will also no longer fund research projects involving the listed foreign institutions, a decision that has not failed to displease China.

Likewise, more and more European countries are aware of Chinese military threats in academic research and espionage.

CORRECT!V, a German nonprofit investigative journalism platform, found that Chinese scholars with military backgrounds have participated in about 3,000 projects with European universities, many of these to the benefit of China’s National University of Defence Technology, the country’s main military research institute.

Many projects in the field of artificial intelligence and quantum computing are dual use and can also be applied to the military. European authorities are now assessing the risks, and some universities have started to refuse Chinese doctoral students in sensitive projects.

Not only is the risk of non-traditional threats increasing, but some Chinese students are becoming more aggressive towards different opinions.

After pro-democracy protests broke out in Hong Kong in 2019, many pro-government Chinese students took part in actions against pro-democracy activists in many countries.

The latest incident was reported in the United States, where Wu Xiaolei, a Chinese student at Berklee College of Music, was convicted by a court in Boston of stalking and threatening another Chinese student, a young woman.

In December 2022, the latter had posted flyers after a series of protests were held against COVID-19 lockdowns in China. Wu threatened to cut off her hands and inform Chinese security authorities.

Beijing has not yet commented on Wu's case, but observers believe Chinese authorities may exploit patriotic sentiment to crack down on dissent abroad.


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